More than 100 local TV station are doing news in hi-def, and the total is growing at roughly five per month. The typical upgrade estimate is in the neighborhood of $3 million, and the returns have not yet been fully quantified.
Yet it's clear that local news is the brand anchor for TV stations around the country. As one veteran broadcaster observed, local newscasts typically get better ratings than the national network news within a given market.
Stations are moving into HD news one step at a time. Most local HD newscasts are being produced within studios, but field acquisition is often done in standard definition, sometimes in 16:9. When stations do begin the move to full HD--including ENG--a network upgrade is likely necessary.
"From an infrastructure and network standpoint, you have to deal with an entirely new crop of equipment," said Darby Marriott, a newsroom and editing product specialist with Harris. "The changes include your servers, LAN, routers, editing stations, ENG cameras--the entire end-to-end newsflow. It requires more than just changing out your switcher and studio cameras."
KVOA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., overhauled much of its plant to launch full HD newscasts in 2007.
"It was almost like building a new station," Marriott said.
KVOA-TV, the Cordillera Communications-owned NBC affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., completed the upgrades in the newsroom and the control room necessary to launch its news in hi-def last year. Station personnel prepare for the noon newscast. Photo Courtesy of Harris
The $2 million upgrade included the purchase of three Panasonic HD studio cameras equipped with Fujinon HD lenses, plus a Panasonic multiformat HD point-of-view camera hung in the lighting grid.
In the control room, operators now use a Ross Video switcher and Harris Leitch HD servers. Weather has been brought up to hi-def with WSI True View HD software. Editing is done on Harris Leitch Velocity NX nonlinear editors.
KVOA more recently upgraded its field camcorders to Panasonic P2 HD camcorders, according to Andy Suk, director of engineering with Cordillera Communications, which owns KVOA.
"We're running the full file flow all the way through our operation now," he said.
One element that remains undone, however, is archiving, Suk noted.
It's "one great big piece of the puzzle that people forget about when thinking about the full HD news workflow," he said.
Since news people want to be able access archive material indefinitely, Suk does not see a "spinning disk" approach as a solution for archiving.
FROM ENG HD TAPE
It's possible to shoot and edit HD ENG material on tape, but digital files offer more transport and editing flexibility.
When Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C. launched the nation's inaugural HD newscast seven years ago, file-based field acquisition was impractical, if not virtually impossible.
The WRAL-TV hi-def news set, with morning news anchor Bill Leslie. WRAL, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co., was first in the nation on the air with an HD newscast. Photo Courtesy of WRAL-TV"At the time we went to HD news, it had never been done before, so we had to work with what was available," WRAL Chief Engineer Peter Sockett said. "As a result, our newsroom continued to use a tape-based workflow; it was HD, but still tape-based. But today, if we were starting out again, we would launch with a file-based system."
The CBS affiliate was upgraded to a file-based infrastructure more than two years ago; field acquisition is being addressed now.
"We are getting into file-based HD camcorders, and we are using nonlinear editing on laptops out in the field," Sockett said.
HD video files require more bandwidth than SD equivalents. The standard bit rate of networks designed to handle HD files is 1.5 Gbps, although the advent of 1080p is driving the development of 3 Gbps devices.
Many stations face an end-to-end upgrade of the LAN and its attendant devices to be able to handle HD video files.
The next challenge involves master control. End-to-end HD news requires more than just upgrading the switcher. HD newscasts require hi-def graphics to look truly credible on air. There is also the question of dealing with third-party news footage, much of which is still SD.
Such footage has to be upconverted, but, again, there are choices involved. It can be stretched to 16:9 with the subsequent flattening, or presented in 4:3 with the missing sides filled in by colored bars or graphics. Each station has to determine its own course of action.
Many U.S. stations are looking for answers as they move to full HD news production. In San Francisco, CBS-owned KPIX-TV is in the midst of a full-scale transition from SD to HD news production.
"The station infrastructure is undergoing a complete replacement from a majority of analog sources and distribution to a hybrid of analog and SDI/HD-SDI," said Akilah Monifa, director of communications for KPIX and its sister station, CW affiliate KBCW-TV.
"We are upgrading our network with GigE [Gigabit Ethernet] switches and backbone improvements. We are installing SNMP management infrastructure and creating an exception monitoring environment. We also installed a Hitachi Data Systems SAN for... creative service and production workflow [and] storage."
KPIX is currently using a mix of HD and upconverted SD inputs. The Baron Services weather graphics and the studio cameras are HD, while the Chyron character generator images are16:9 SDI upconverted. Meanwhile, all tape playback, ENG and satellite live shots are 4:3 analog upconverted. For ENG, KPIX is using SD equipment, with the intention of moving to HD later this year.
KPIX has added a complement of new equipment for the upgrade, including a Pesa HD/SDI router, a Snell & Wilcox Kahuna production switcher and terminal gear, a Solid State Logic C100 HD audio console, a Miranda Kaleido-X image mux, Evertz TSG and fiber conversion, Avocent KVM router/extenders, Sony studio cameras with Canon lenses, and NEC and Panasonic LCD monitors.
IT JUST LOOKS EASY
The transition to HD news hasn't been without complications.
"Graphics must be created in multiple formats as we currently have devices that accept HD, SD and many 'mid-formats,'" Monifa said. "It's essentially a patchwork of old and new equipment, as our station had a limited HD conversion budget. Thus, a large percentage of our designers' time is spent devising how to best 'fill the raster' across these various devices. While what comes out over the air looks great, there's a lot of daily, back-end strategy behind it. HD files take longer to render and occupy more hard-drive space, which slows the production process."
The move to HD news was relatively straightforward for Belo-owned CBS affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston.
"We already had put a lot of HD products in place for the 2009 digital switchover," said Frank Peterman, KHOU director of technology. "For studio production, we chose the Thomson Grass Valley LDK 4000 camera, while we are recording to Grass Valley K2 media servers and editing on Avid Adrenaline and Symphony systems. Our HD graphics package is from Vizrt, and we are shooting our ENG footage in 16:9 SD."
HD news capability was a straightforward extension of the digital build-out at KHOU-TV, the Belo-owned CBS affiliate in Houston. Photos Courtesy of KHOU-TV The station has three Sony HD XDCAMs for commercial production and news promos. KHOU also mounted an HD camera on its news helicopter and another on its tower for beauty shots of downtown Houston, but its microwave system remains SD-based.
"All told, moving to this level of HD news production hasn't affected our workflow much at all," Peterman said.
PROTECTING FOR 4:3
In New York, WNBC-TV, owned by NBC Universal, has rebuilt its core infrastructure to fully support its HD media content center, according to Anna C. Carbonell, vice president of press and public affairs.
The major hi-def equipment added include a 512x512 core router, cameras and lenses, a multiformat production switcher, digital record/playback units, nonlinear editing, a multi-image display wall and a 60-fader audio console. WNBC also bought the HD version of the graphics equipment it uses for SD.
Dealing with the aspect ratios of outside feeds is also an issue that has to be dealt with daily. One of the station's main concerns about the move to HD news has been the impact on viewers watching older TV sets.
"Although we were broadcasting in HD," Carbonell said, "we visually had to protect the 4:3 viewing audience."
Protecting the picture for legacy TV sets is expected to be an issue for some time to come. An automated system known as Active Format Description is available, but stations and networks are reluctant to let software crop their pictures, especially when it took a facility upgrade to create them.